Dolores J. Nurss

Volume IV: Braided Paths

Chapter 8

On the Devil's Road

Wednesday, August 19, 2708, continued.

            (“It’s herbal,”  I hear somebody whisper as we change into the blessed relief of gym clothes.  “It’s not just something to get drunk on, you know—don’t forget that it’s sacred.”

I want to hear more, but just then someone else drawls, “Hey—who let the frost-giants in?” right when Joel, Jake and Don arrive.  I see Jake pale.

“So that’s where the frost-giants went—they all hid out on Lumne!”  Laughter echoes off the gym walls, and the metallic squeaks of locker doors seem to join in.

“I hear that frost giants have brains about the size of their big toe.”

“And they pass those brains around, because they don’t have enough for everybody.”  The tall ones try to change without paying any heed, but I see the tensed muscles  “These three probably pass one around between them.”  Joel especially looks mortified and confused; I’ll bet he’s never encountered bullying before.

“Yeah.  They snort it up their noses!”

“I bet you won’t hear the three of them talking at the same time, ever!”

Jake and Don look at each other.

“Yeah, that’s why they’re just starting school, at their age!”

In a menacingly mild voice Jake says, “Actually, my father homeschooled me quite well.”  And now he looms over his chief tormenter.  “He sent me here to learn how to be nice.”  With that he picks up the kid and turns him upside down.  “Don, his left stocking has gotten bunched up.”  And he holds out the screaming, squirming brat at arm’s length.  “It must have become uncomfortable.  Could you fix it for him?”

“Not until he stops kicking around like that.”

“You’re right, Don.  I shall just have to hold him here till he calms down.”

The boy abruptly goes limp, and Don slips back the stirrup.  With slow deliberation he removes the slipper, makes a great show of waving off the smell of the foot, then pushes the stocking back up where it belongs and fastens it, while the kid turns red from hanging upside down.  Then he puts the slipper back on, feigns a sigh of relief, and re-stirrups it.

Jake sets the boy down again, right side up, saying, “See?  I’m learning to be nice.  I used to be quite violent, you understand, but my father decided that I needed to walk among civilized folks to learn better manners.”  And he pats the shivering boy on the head.  “Thank you for helping to teach me.  I know I’ll get the hang of it soon.”

We finish changing, laughing quietly among ourselves, and everybody leaves us alone.  Don has gone all pink-cheeked and can’t help grinning, Joel’s face shows immense relief, and as for Jake, he looks positively radiant.

The coach calls us out to the field.  He sends back the kid who has left his stockings, leggings and slippers on under his gym clothes, to change properly; the other boys laugh.  I notice that the man repeatedly averts his eyes from the four of us.  He seems, in fact, as scared as our erstwhile bullies.  Interesting.  Has he become accustomed to overlooking menacing behavior in the student body?)

* * *

They grind on our trail again, already.  What is it with these people?   My tricks can keep us ahead of the enemy, but not quite far enough to let us rest.  The echoes make them sound like thousands, millions; it could drive us mad if I didn’t keep reminding the children, and myself, that stone distorts and amplifies all that we hear.  At the same time I wonder if the enemy, too, can hear our feet, our breath, our beating hearts?

Greenfire nerves, nothing more than that.  After awhile it becomes hard to imagine anything as safe.  Or maybe the leaf just reveals things as they are: a savage world that shears away everything we think of as ourselves, and every illusion of comfort or consolation.

It’s me they want, I finally realize.  Not just Malcolm.  The renegade agent of Til.  I wonder what price they’ve put on my head, that every soldier wants a piece of it, even if shared with a troop.  I mean, man, these guys are motivated!

I give orders again to toss the waterskins around us as we run, insisting that everyone drink deeply, for the sweat runs off of us like rain, even in this cold.  Greenfire can make you forget all about thirst, if you don't take care.  I didn't even realize my own thirst, myself, till wiping the sweat from my eyes reminded me.

The water tastes harsh, mineral laden, most recently scooped out of a hollow in the stone.    I feel grit in my mouth from the mud.  All manner of things might grow in it, things that could sicken us, swift or slow.  But thirst can kill us faster, and with greater certainty.

* * *

            (Finished with our supper, we line up to deposit our trays onto a rumbly old conveyer belt that carries the detritus of our dining through rubber flaps and out of sight.

“Will you let me BE!” an old voice shrills, unnaturally high.  I turn and to my shock see a hag in an apron, with a flush-faced young female trying to tug her back by the elbow.  “Time to gather up the dishes.  We used to always go out to gather up the dishes, have a nice break, get out of the steam—let go of me!”

The younger one squeaks.  “Come back, Hulda!  We’re not allowed anymore.  Please!”

“Not…oh.  Oh yeah.  They changed all the rules.  That’s right.  Silly new rules, just because a few dollies didn’t know when to keep their gapin’ legs shut…” and she keeps maundering on all the way back into the kitchen.  “Devil’s road—they’s all on the devil’s road, they is.”

Speaking of gaping, every boy in line stares with an open mouth like a ghost had just wafted by.  I feel a little shook up, myself, though I’m not sure why.  But soon routine kicks in and every tray finds its way onto the belt to rumble on out of sight as all such things ought to go.

So, off to the rec room, to shoot a little pool or play darts, or curl up in an overstuffed chair to strain our eyes on the cramped uncial lettering of a proper Toulinian book.  After all, at least three of us have already finished our homework during Study-Hall—much to the chagrin of those who dismissed Jake and Don as Frost-Giants.

Jake eyes the pool table wistfully.  He used to like the game.  But since the mind-change it has become a bore; whoever in Fireheart gets the cue never lets go again till at last the 8-ball goes into the pocket.

But then a narrow-chinned, lean youth plucks a cue from the frame and chalks it, eyeing Jake.  Oh well—a few hustles ought to silence the anti-Lumite crowd for good.            “Want to play?” the boy asks.

Jake shrugs.  “Why not?  You first, though.”

The kid smiles, revealing buck teeth, but with his sculpted cheekbones, keen brown eyes, and the black curl on his brow, he manages to look handsome anyway.  “Ah.  A diplomat.  What is your name, Lumnite?”

“Jake il’Dawes,” he says, or so it sounds to my ears.  “And you?”

“Winsall.  George Winsall.”  And he transfers the cue to the left hand to extend the right to Jake.  He notes the awkwardness as Jake instinctively reaches out his own left and then finishes with the right.  “A lefty,” George says approvingly, shaking the hand.  “I knew I saw you turn your plate at dinner.”

“Gives me an edge at fencing.  It’s a pain, otherwise.”

Winsall racks the balls.  “They say that all lefties belong to the Devil.”  He breaks the formation with a clatter of wood hitting wood, and then proceeds to demolish the striped balls, one by one.  “Is that true, do you think, il’Dawes?”

“I couldn’t say,” Jake replies, eyes on the cue-ball.  “I never met the Devil.”

“Ah, but I think you have,” says George, and misses his shot.  “I can see it in your eyes.  I can feel it radiate off of you, like a kind of heat.  You have met the Devil, and you have visited Hell.”  He hands over the cue, and I see their fingers touch.  “We are not all good boys here, you know.”

“I gather,” Jake says, putting solid-colored balls into their pockets, one after another, click, click, click.

“I like the way you demolished those loudmouths at gym.”  Winsall parks one slim hip on the edge of the table while Jake goes over to the other to pick off more balls.  “Mind you, I don’t mind a little…forcefulness…now and then, to make one’s point, but they were simply crass.”

“Indeed,” Jake says, and manages to ricochet the balls in such a way that two solid-colors go into separate pockets at the same time.

Winsall swears appreciatively under his breath and asks, “Where in Heaven or Hell did you ever learn to play like that?”

“Lumne.  My Dad has a pool table in the basement.  Only thing to do in storm-season.”

Smiling, Winsall says, “You are the Devil’s son!  And, I hope, soon to become my friend.”  And, having run out of solids, Jake sinks the 8-ball.)

* * *

            Nightfall, and the cold air gnaws at us.  It claws our clothing, it ruffles through our hair like hands, it plays with us like angry ghosts.  Maybe it really does carry ghosts, of all the soldiers that we've slain, of our own unburied dead, of peasants who have suffered reprisals thanks to us.  Or maybe some older malice rides upon the wind.  We all can feel it.

Yet at last we can walk, though not stop, the echoes falling further behind us.  The llamas heave and stumble; we give them rest when we can, and have unburdened them as much as possible, rotating which ones carry our surviving wounded.

            “Can’t we free them?” Lufti pleads, his eyes dark and bruised by exhaustion.

            “I’m afraid not.  We need every advantage we can get.  Llamas have strategic value in this kind of terrain.”

            “They’re gonna die,” he grumbles.  “They’re gonna die if they stay with us, and we won’t get any of that strategicness out of them anyway.  Dead as Rashid’s mule.”

            “We all shall die,” I say before I can stop myself, “To serve the revolution.  What of it?”

            “They never volunteered.”

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